Saturday, June 22, 2002

Whites take major roles in movies about minorities
Special to the Chicago Tribune

June 27, 2002

You might think that it is fair to expect a movie called "Windtalkers" to be about, well, Windtalkers, the Navajo soldiers whose indispensable contribution to the American forces in World War II was the development of an unbreakable code based on their native language. That code was used for battlefield communications in every battle with the Japanese for three years.

Their contribution was so important and the code they developed so valuable that it was not made public for almost half a century, just in case we needed to use it again. I really wanted to see that story. I wanted to see how the Navajo soldiers were treated in then-still-segregated U.S. armed forces. I wanted to see how they adapted the Navajo language, using the word for "sweet potato" for "hand grenade" and "bird" for "plane."

Maybe someday someone will tell that story. Unfortunately, "Windtalkers" is just the most recent addition to a long list of movies that fit into the category of "in theory saluting a marginalized minority but in reality marginalizing them further by making the movie about the white guy."

That list includes movies like "Ghosts of Mississippi," in which a white lawyer played by Alec Baldwin gets most of the credit for finally bringing the killer of Medgar Evers to justice, while Evers' widow (played with enormous dignity and grace by Whoopi Goldberg) has, literally, a supporting role. Similarly, "Mississippi Burning" was about the valiant efforts of the white lawyers, not the contributions of the black activists.

One of the most momentous turning points in American history is the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King following the arrest of Rosa Parks for sitting in a seat reserved for whites. "The Long Walk Home" tells the story -- from the perspective of the spoiled white woman who begins to think differently when her cleaning lady (again beautifully played by Goldberg) can't get to work. Then there is "Cry Freedom," which should have been the story of Stephen Biko, who was killed in a South African prison because he fought for the rights of black Africans. Denzel Washington is magnificent as Biko, but his role is brief. The movie turns out to be the story of Biko's white friend, played by Kevin Kline.

If Erin Brockovich had been black, the movie would have been about her white boss.

Many of these stories are based on the memories of the people who were there, and certainly, the stories of the white participants are legitimate and inspiring and deserve to be told. But they have been told, many, many times, and it is time to hear from someone else. In the case of "Windtalkers," the main character played by Nicolas Cage is an entirely fictional creation, while the code talkers are real people, some of whom are still alive. It is a terrible waste to give their story to someone else.

There have been exceptions. Denzel Washington's portrayals of Malcolm X and Hurricane Carter and Will Smith's performance as Muhammed Ali were extraordinary films, though box office disappointments. All are essential viewing for mature teens. And television does better than Hollywood. The producers of made-for-cable movies such as 1998's "Ruby Bridges" and 2001's "Boycott" (with the incomparable Jeffrey Wright as Martin Luther King) do not have to try to persuade studio executives that white people will buy tickets and thus have the freedom to tell the story that Hollywood thinks audiences won't care about.

Parents must make sure that all children and teens understand that books, movies, songs, even newspaper stories, have a point of view. And parents should also help them think about what the point of view might be and how their own point of view might be different.

I recently saw a map of the world that put the Pacific in the center. The U.S. looked smaller and much less significant off to the side. We need to make sure that kids of all races see movies with a point of view that will be as powerful a reminder as that map that just because our stories are central to us does not mean that they are the best or most important, and certainly they are not the only stories that need to be told. Maybe that way we'll even get a movie that really is about the Windtalkers.